Does power corrupt?

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Earlier this morning Pastor Walter Mitty dropped into the History/Herstory Bookstore to see if Bernie Rolvaag had a copy of Casey Gerald's memoir "There Will Be No Miracles Here."

He had hear one reviewer on the radio say, "Gerald's story shows. . .how power tuns people into puppets, how complicit we are in the construction of an American narrative that narrows so many lives down to nothing." But just the night before he had watched Johnny Christian's "Hour of Power," in which the mega church preacher declared that God gives power to those who obey.

The difference between the two regarding power troubled him and he had to find out more, especially because his Poplar Park Community Church had less members than when he began there 20 years ago. And that made him feel pretty powerless.

As he was asking Bernie if he had the book in stock, Fr. Bob Sullivan walked in the door. Bernie greeted the pastor of St. Mary's with, "Hey Padre, how's it going?"

"OK, I guess," the priest replied.

"You OK?" asked Mitty.

"I am a little down," Fr. Sullivan admitted.

"What's wrong," asked Bernie.

"My church has really been taking a beating," replied Fr. Sullivan.

"St. Mary's?!"

"No, no," Fr. Sullivan couldn't help but laugh. "We might be a little boring but we're certainly not in the middle of a controversy. No, I mean the Catholic Church. It seems like there is a new report of child abuse and a cover up in the news every day. I sometimes feel embarrassed to tell people I'm a Catholic."

All three friends let that statement just sit there without needing to comment.

Fr. Sullivan broke the silence. "Sometimes I think that the root of the problem is how my church is governed. . . . . .you know, top down. Episcopal polity it's called. A dictatorship really."

"My parishioners," the Franciscan continued, "tell me that they love St. Mary's but are disillusioned with the hierarchy. Honestly, sometimes I feel that way too. My order's founder, St. Francis, taught that leadership was not about power but service."

"Sounds like my condo board," laughed Bernie. "No power. Lots of work. But seriously, I have a biography you might like. It's about a guy named John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton."

"Lord Acton," said Mitty. "Wasn't he the guy who said that power corrupts?"

"Exactly. The whole quote is, 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. . . .'  What makes that statement poignant for us today is that he made it in 1870, the same year that the First Vatican Council began. That's the council which promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility and papal supremacy."

"I hear what you are saying," said Pastor Mitty, "but I have the opposite problem. Poplar Park Community Church is independent. No denomination. No bishops to tell me what to do or to cover up my sins."

Fr. Sullivan and Bernie acknowledged the difference by nodding.

"My challenge is that my congregation is a democracy. You know, the people have the power. So they always tell me that they want me to be a strong leader. That is until they don't like something I say or do. Then, they remind me that just as they had the authority to hire me, they also have the power to fire me."

"For that I have another book in stock," said Bernie with a self-congratulatory smile.   "'On Liberty,' by John Stuart Mill, was written just 11 years before Lord Acton made his statement about power. Among other things Mill talked about the 'tyranny of the majority,' that is when the majority gets too much power and that becomes another kind of tyranny. If that happens, look out if you are in the minority."

"So what are we to do?" Pastor Mitty asked his two friends. "If top down power can corrupt leaders and oppress followers, bottom up power can lead the followers in a community to become tyrannical themselves. What's more, don't we need power to get something done. Like electrical power. Without it, no computer, no printer, no email. I typed my college papers on a Smith Corona manual typewriter. Now I'm way more productive."

"That's true, Walt," Bernie added, "and we used this nation's enormous power to defeat fascism in the 1940s."

"Talk about power," said Pastor Mitty feigning deep depression, "Khalil Mack single handedly destroyed my Green Bay Packers."

"That's what you get," teased Fr. Sullivan, "for being a cheese head living in Chicago."

Laughing felt good to the three friends who found themselves getting depressed by wrestling with the conundrum of how to use power so it produces a blessing instead of a curse.

"I'm just now thinking about St. Francis again," Fr. Sullivan said after pondering the issue. "If all of us adopted his life style, we'd all be living in the dark ages."

"What we are seeing in Washington and in Springfield, in my opinion," said Pastor Mitty feeling like he had just figured something out, "are examples of the abuse of too much power. But, on the other hand, aren't many of us to blame for not exercising enough power. I saw a statistic online which revealed that only half of the eligible voters in Illinois actually voted. Isn't that abuse of power by exercising too little of it?"

"So here we are in our little town of Poplar Park," said Bernie, in an attempt to bring the discussion to a close, because a customer had just walked in the door. "None of us have the power to single handedly change the world. And even if we did, what would prevent us from abusing it?"

As Pastor Mitty walked home, he made a kind of New Year's resolution to use the power he has, while being mindful that like fire, it can heat your home and at that same time it can burn it down.

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